Solar powered vehicles have been a dream for many people for over a century, and in recent decades have become very desirable as a movement away from fossil fuels has grown. In the modern world, with oil reserves dwindling and the environmental impacts of gas-powered cars becoming more and more apparent, the desire for a solar car has grown even greater. At the same time, there are many technical hurdles in the way of every person having a car that can drive by the power of the sun alone.
The biggest concern with a solar car, of course, is whether it can get enough energy from on-board solar panels to power the car for a reasonable distance. Every current solar car has a quite limited range while driving, and then requires an extended period of time to recharge its batteries while stationary, sitting in the sun during that time. Because of the limited ranges, and the high cost, the majority of solar cars currently in existence are used only for racing purposes.
A solar car is powered by a solar array fitted somewhere on the car. These arrays may be fitted on the roof, in a horizontal system, or may be formed as a sort of solar sail, standing upright to catch sun in the morning and evening. More complex arrays are highly adjustable, allowing them to point directly at the sun at any time of day and while traveling in any direction. The large arrays used on a racing solar car may generate as much as 2 kilowatts of energy.
Of course, the electronic systems for a solar car are extremely expensive, and solar panels themselves are quite pricey. Most competition cars cost in excess of $100,000 US Dollars (USD), making them far too cost prohibitive for the general market to ever be able to afford them. While there are a number of projects working on a more affordable solar car, in the $20,000 USD range, currently the majority of focus is going to other alternative car designs.
Cars with onboard battery systems that can be quickly switched out for full batteries at charging stations are currently seeing a great deal of interest. While not technically a solar car, the charging stations could operate off of solar panels installed at their facilities, or with wind, geothermal, or another renewable energy source. Since weight and space are lesser considerations at a static facility, this allows cost to be kept down, and more power to be acquired, without having to create bulky cars.
Ultimately, it is likely that an affordable solar car with a truly long-distance range will not be available until there is a leap in solar technology that allows for much greater efficiencies in solar panels for less cost and less weight. Until then, the only solar car likely to be seen off the racetrack will be a car meant for navigating extremely short distances, such as around cities. In China, for example, a small car is available which can run 90 miles (150km) off a single charge, but which takes about thirty hours to recharge fully. And at just under $6,000 USD it can be an ideal solution for those who just need to navigate the city.